Gary, our liaison from Hydro-Quebec, had a flight to catch at about midday. That meant that we had an early start. We were outside the hotel, warming up the car at 7 AM. The car needed the warm-up, too; the weather had gone back downhill a bit. It was blustery and cold, though not as windy as it had been earlier in the week.
Our first stop of the day was under a unique transmission line. Although there are transmission lines crossing the landscape almost everywhere you look in this region, this line in particular was something interesting. As Gary explained to us, it was a direct current (DC) line that ran from the La Grande hydroelectric system all the way south to Boston. It forms an enormous circuit that stretches for over 1,000 miles. Hydro-Quebec uses this line to deliver power directly into the ISO New England grid, selling power wholesale onto the regional market. In a way, we were standing at the other end of the power line that turns on everybody’s light switches in Vermont. This was a major reason we were here. Vermont purchases up to 30% of its electricity from Hydro-Quebec, and that share is likely to increase significantly as the state implements its plans to be powered by 90% renewable energy by 2050. If a Vermonter were to ask “where does my power come from?”, we could now literally show them, at least for a third of their power anyway. The power lines themselves are only the tip of the iceberg that is the answer to that question, of course, but as one of our goals is to connect Vermonters to their power consumption in a more concrete and personal way, this was an important shot for us.
From the DC line, we headed further westward along the La Grande River, stopping next at the LG1 dam and power station. This is the first power station on the La Grande. It has an installed generating capacity of 1,436 megawatts and is a “run-of-river” facility, meaning that it is built directly over the river and its generation station doubles as a dam. According to Hydro-Quebec, more than 22 million cubic feet of concrete was required to build it — the same amount as a sidewalk from Montreal to Miami.
As the weather was not ideal and we had appointments for interviews, we took only a few exteriors and then headed into the offices to set up.
Our first interview was with George Pepabano, a Cree who had worked for Hydro-Quebec as an electrician for 25 years. We followed that up with an interview with Marc Larocque, who preferred to answer in French. Luckily, Gary was kind enough to interpret on the spot.
After we wrapped up at LG1 (and, incidentally, with Hydro-Quebec), we continued on our way for Chisasibi. We intended to stop a few times on the way there to pick up some landscape shots of areas that we had seen on our previous trip. Eric also wanted to try to get some footage of wildlife. We had seen precious few animals so far, far fewer than I had anticipated. In a region so remote and wild, known for its large numbers of geese and caribou, I had thought we’d have seen something interesting by now. But the most we had come across were a few sparrow-like birds, for the most part. I saw a couple of ptarmigans for a split second one evening, snow-white and barely distinguishable from the snowbank they were ducking behind, and we saw two strange animals on the James Bay Road in the dark that might have been foxes, or something else entirely. But that was it. We figured it might be because we had so far stuck only to well-traveled, paved roads, although this didn’t really make all that much sense considering that the roads would have been some of the best scavenging grounds for a lot of animals, as a result of the trash output from the humans traversing them (even this far north, littering is unfortunately still a reality), and you see plenty of wildlife along the roads in Vermont.
We came upon what looked to be a “bush road” and decided to stop and get out for a walk. If we had been able to fit our snowshoes in the car, we could have struck out for the woods, but that hadn’t been possible. This road looked to be an easy way to get a bit deeper into the forest, though, and it was maintained well enough that we had no trouble walking it in our boots.
I was shooting the falling snowflakes at high frame rate, trying to capture some of the natural magic of our surroundings, when a large SUV pulled up next to me. I looked over and saw that it was an officer from the Cree police. He was very friendly and told me he’d heard us on the radio. Eric joined us, and the officer gave him a deadpan look and told him, “You’re trespassing on native lands.” That stopped Eric cold for about half a second, before the cop let loose a hearty laugh. The Cree are not lacking in a sense of humor. Down the road was the officer’s wife, he told us, who was teaching some of the local children at what was called “Cree Culture Camp.” He encouraged us to walk down and say hi, wished us well and then departed. We continued on.
Cree Culture Camp turned out to be a small collection of cabins in a clearing. Outside the cabin, a woman was helping a group of about 8 children don snowshoes. We introduced ourselves and asked if it would be okay to film. She said her name was Elsie House, and that it would be fine to film. Eric asked her about what she was doing. What followed was one of the most magical experiences we had during our entire trip. Unfortunately, it is something that is rather difficult to convey in words. A paraphrasing may have to suffice.
Elsie told us that she was normally the teacher for the girls, and that there was usually someone else teaching the boys, but that person wasn’t there today. As a result, she was feeling a little overrun, though one wouldn’t have guessed it from her calm demeanor and confident handling of the kids swarming around her. Cree Culture Camp was where the kids came to learn the old ways, she told us, so that their theoretical learning in school was supplemented with the practical teachings handed down by their ancestors. They learned how to lace snowshoes, make clothing, snare rabbits and other small game, as well as forestry, science and animal studies. She told us that many things have changed since the hydroelectric development. The animal migration patterns have changed, she said, and the geese are no longer found where they once were. The river no longer freezes, and the traditions surrounding the freeze-up and break-up of the river are already lost. Food changed dramatically for the Cree after the development, she said. They never had frozen, processed food while living on Fort George Island (where the community lived before the construction of the dams). With the building of the roads and the clash of cultures came an influx of processed food and a distinct rise in diabetes and other health concerns. As a result of these changes, and others, it was important to teach the children what the adults still knew of their traditional ways.
As if to illustrate the point, one of the kids came over to ask for help with her snowshoes. They were traditional-style snowshoes, but they had a modern strap system attached to them, which clearly was not working. “This is a store-bought thing,” Elsie said, “We find they don’t work very well. That’s why I make my own from moose hide.” Most of the other kids had these homemade straps on their snowshoes, and their simplicity and effectiveness were immediately apparent. They were lashed on by two simple lengths of moose hide, but there was clearly a proven technique that had to be mastered to learn how to tie them on properly.
Elsie said she could have taught grade 4 in English, but she said no, insisting on teaching in Cree. She wanted to teach her language and culture. She has done so for the last ten years. “It’s very rewarding to know your culture,” she told us.
It was rewarding to us to learn just a little about it first-hand, that was for certain. What’s more, in a single impromptu interview we had captured a huge percentage of the concepts and images we wanted to come away with from this trip. That single chance meeting nearly made the entire trip worth it, all on its own.